'Split' Twist Turns M. Night Shyamalan Universe Into Another MCU

'Split' Twist Turns M. Night Shyamalan Universe Into Another MCU

By Robert Dougherty Feb 01, 2017 09:23 AM
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Buena Vista Pictures

The big secret behind Split is clearly out, after two straight convincing victories at the box office. And if M. Night Shyamalan's best laid plans come to fruition, that secret will lead to a follow up movie that would pretty much make him the master of his own cinematic universe.

In connecting his newest hit with one of his older ones, Shyamalan took a few pages out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe playbook, while also going the opposite way in some cases. Nevertheless, the ways in which Shyamalan has duplicated the MCU haven't all been promising, both for Split and for what may come next.

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

The final revelation of Split has spread faster than perhaps any other Shyamalan secret ending since The Sixth Sense, or at least faster in a positive way than all his other twist endings. However, the end isn't a twist as much as a revelation that Split has been one big origin story for Unbreakable hero David Dunn's next handicapped super nemesis, as Bruce Willis's last second appearance confirmed.

Buena Vista Pictures

In that context, Split is really nothing more than a prequel for an Unbreakable sequel, which Shyamalan plans to write out for his next movie. If that sequel happens to have James McAvoy's Beast/Horde of multiple personalities team up with Samuel L. Jackson's Mr. Glass, then such an Unbreakable/Split crossover would really be The Avengers of the Shyamalan universe, only with his Avengers as supervillains.

Nonetheless, one of the biggest complaints about certain superhero movies, and blockbusters in general, is that they are just prequels and two-hour teasers for supposedly better movies to come. Split follows that side effect to the letter, as the ending confirms that all it really does is tease the bigger Shyamalan crossover ahead, lay out questions it has no intention of answering until the next movie, and suggest that all the actually interesting stuff hasn't happened yet.

One could say that the Phase 1 slate of MCU films worked or didn't work the same way, as well as other MCU films like Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron which merely set the stage for the future, instead of telling its own successful stand alone story. However, payoffs like The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War made those delays and stumbles worth it in the end, while Shyamalan is still in the very early stages of crafting his own.

Split is a movie where the last minute is instantly more memorable than all those before it. Yet that is because of how it makes viewers look ahead to the future, not look back and see the rest of the movie in a new and startling light. The Sixth Sense used its final twist to turn an already great movie into something deeper, richer and unexpected, whereas Split's finale is really one giant inside joke and teaser.

That alone may suggest how far Shyamalan's priorities and inspirations for twists have fallen. What's more, it retroactively turns Unbreakable from a movie that broke the mold in superhero movie storytelling, into just another cinematic universe origin story.

Buena Vista Pictures

When Unbreakable first came out in 2000, the MCU was nowhere near a pipe dream, while X-Men had only just begun the new wave of comic book movies months earlier. 16 years later, Unbreakable stands out even more as the opposite of the MCU and DCEU brands of superhero films. With no CGI to speak of, no explosions or save the world plots, a story set squarely in the real world, and Jackson playing someone that only looked like a precursor to Nick Fury, Unbreakable is the kind of superhero themed movie that Marvel, DC and FOX would never make today.

The biggest critics of comic book films often complain that they are all really the same deep down. However, Unbreakable is the exact opposite in so many ways, as it was truly a superhero movie ahead of its time. But this might make it all the more disturbing that 16 years later, it has been folded into an extended superhero/villain universe anyway and has now lost a little bit of its individuality.

Of course, even with Shyamalan going into universe building mode, his world of heroes and villains still has to be different from all the others.

For one thing, Shyamalan isn’t making movies with $100+ million budgets anymore, as The Last Airbender and After Earth put an end to his big budget blockbuster career. Even if he is back in good graces again, his revival has been fueled by turning mid-budget movies like The Visit and Split into sleeper hits, so it would beseech him not to mess with that formula for his sake. As such, he won’t be making MCU or DCEU level spectacles anytime soon, no matter how many heroes and villains he brings together.

Universal Pictures

Split winds up having more elaborate visual tricks than Unbreakable when “The Beast” awakens, so if he does wind up facing the unbreakable David Dunn, there should be more actual fight scenes. But they surely won’t be as destructive and collateral damage-riddled as the combat scenes in the average MCU film, to say nothing of the DCEU.

If the Horde of Kevin’s multiples winds up breaking Elijah Price/Mr. Glass out of his “institution for the criminally insane” his mental and psychological brand of evil scheming would surely balance out the Horde’s more physical threat. Such a combination would indeed make this team up of Shyamalan’s supervillains like the reverse Avengers, and further reflect an ironic reversal from one of the MCU’s most recurring problems.

With almost every new MCU movie that doesn’t feature Loki, critics complain that the MCU has pretty much no memorable villains to counter its much better gallery of heroes. One could say the Shyamalan universe has the reverse problem, with villains that are far more fascinating than its heroes. Elijah was already more memorable than Willis’s brooding David even before the final reveal of Unbreakable, while Kevin’s various personas were the whole show of Split, with almost nothing left over for actual protagonist and lead kidnap victim Casey.

The villains, not the heroes, are the big unifying factor in Shyamalan’s world and have all pretty much won so far, save for Elijah getting locked up. Yet there are other very obvious similarities between Shyamalan’s villains, which partly tipped off Split’s finale even before the final minute. However, those similarities aren’t exactly sensitive to the disabled community.

Universal Pictures

Between revealing a wheelchair bound and highly brittle character as a criminal mastermind and terrorist, making someone with dissociative identity disorder into a literal supervillain with almost magic powers, and suggesting a sequel where a literally unbreakable white man will have to defeat both, Shyamalan is at best oblivious in sending some rather troubling messages.

But given The Beast’s climactic ranting that only the broken are superior, in a world where the broken have only been villains so far, it may not be that oblivious. Yet even that is nothing compared to the suggestion that being a victim of incest and rape saves Casey’s life at the end, which opens a whole different disturbing set of implications.

Whether unintentionally or not, Split and the now extended Shyamalan universe hasn’t looked too enlightened and progressive in certain areas. In that unfortunate way, it resembles the MCU as well, as it also exclusively held up so-called physically perfect white men as its main heroes until recently.

Buena Vista Pictures

In that case, it has taken a decade and over a dozen movies for Marvel to consider people other than white men and actors as leading heroes. Ironically, it has been a bit more progressive in having handicapped and disabled people as heroes, if one leaves aside that Tony Stark and Stephen Strange have their disabilities largely ‘cured’ by science and magic before they could save the universe.

Those decisions and many others in the MCU were largely made by Marvel itself, not an individual. To those who believe that truly independent writers and directors have been squeeze out of corporate run franchises and universes, it may be refreshing that a singular voice in Shyamalan is now making his own.

Still, Shyamalan’s connected universe only has two films in it now, not multiple franchises running at once. The Unbreakable and Split characters likely won’t run into a grown up Haley Joel Osment, let alone Mel Gibson, the Lady in the Water or the evil plants of The Happening.

Those are big differences between the MCU and the ‘SCU’, but Shyamalan’s cinematic universe has taken other cues and storytelling devices from Marvel. In some ways it is troubling and unoriginal, in other ways it has been a polar opposite from the MCU, and others are still too early to judge.

It should all be clearer once the heroes and villains of Unbreakable and Split collide, and Shyamalan reveals if he really has an Avengers style payoff for his world, in what would be the biggest twist to his career of all.

Universal Pictures

Tags: Split (2017), Unbreakable (2000), M. Night Shyamalan, James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Marvel Cinematic Universe
About the Author
Robert Dougherty is a longtime online freelance writer, who wrote reviews, articles & editorials on movies/TV for several years on the now defunct Yahoo Voices.
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